Fashion is one of the top three industries in California, and California is the world’s seventh largest economy. Industry professions include retail, wholesale, marketing, design, merchandising, and manufacturing. Los Angeles is the apparel manufacturing leader in the United States, with three times as many women’s wear establishments and employees as New York City, while San Francisco is ranked number three.

At seventeen, I knew that I wanted to be part of the fashion industry and was ready to try anything to get my big break. Since my Mom had worked for many years at a local department store, I was hired to work in the Ladies Sportswear Department. I was given a rare opportunity to tackle many duties besides selling, including ticketing, marking down sale merchandise, inventory and merchandising. Nancy Dugan, the department manager, taught me the business side of retail, and as time went on she gave me increased responsibility.

In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, sportswear was the hot trend for women, who finally had the ability to choose separates over a dress. Pants and the infamous mini skirt became the symbol of liberation in society and fashion. The Sportswear department was a high volume area with merchandise pouring in and out on a daily basis. I learned the secrets of merchandising with the simple movement of a rack or visual display, and Nancy’s influence helped set me on a career path that I am still following forty years later.

A couple years ago, Benicia High School junior Ashley Houston approached me and expressed her desire to learn about fashion retail. At first I resisted, but this persistent young woman just would not give up. When I finally met Ashley I was impressed with her confidence in making fashion her career goal. She knew what she wanted and how she was going to get there. I took her on as an intern with the idea that I would teach her the way I was taught: through hands-on experience. Ashley learned the realities of fashion retail, including visual merchandising, gross profit, customer base, margins and marketing. She sat in on a number of buying appointments and met several line reps, some of whom took notice of Ashley’s personal style and hired her to assist them at local apparel shows, giving her a feel for the wholesale side of the industry.

For her senior project, Ashley wrote a paper on retail marketing and development, for which she visited Bay Area shopping districts and surveyed women about how, where and why they shopped and how much they spent. I am sure her teacher was as impressed as I was at how thorough and relevant the paper was in identifying how to reach potential customers. After interning for about a year, the fashion planets aligned and Ashley was introduced to a staff member for international designer icon Betsy Johnson. Shortly thereafter, Johnson personally invited Ashley to come to New York City to work as an intern, where she learned firsthand what it takes to be a fashion designer in today’s market. She helped with the Betsy Johnson 2011 Collection during Fashion Week, then returned to the Bay Area to work at Betsy Johnson retail stores.

Ashley recently started FIDM (San Francisco’s renowned Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising) and is ecstatic about her classes and instructors. We continue to work together on local projects, including Benicia’s annual Fashion Weekend, October 7-9.

Mentoring is an important role in any industry. Time spent sharing your passion and knowledge can make a difference in someone’s career. I am looking forward to watching Ashley’s future unfold in an industry that is all about dreams and possibilities.